Inside Baseball

June 01, 2003

From the Top
The first two hitters in the order have juiced up the Braves'
offense

In their unprecedented streak of 11 consecutive division titles,
the Braves have never finished a season as the league leader in
team batting average or runs scored. At week's end Atlanta was
atop the NL in both categories this season, with a .284 average
and 284 runs, due largely to the first two hitters in the order,
shortstop Rafael Furcal and second baseman Marcus
Giles--indispensible tablesetters in a lineup that has carried
the normally pitching-centric Braves to the best record in the
major leagues (34-16).

The two players have matured as hitters, cutting down on their
swings and being more disciplined in their pitch selection. After
batting .247 in 136 games over the past two seasons, Giles was
tied for ninth in the league in hitting (.329) and ranked sixth
in runs (36). Another factor in his turnaround was a winter of
eating chicken breasts instead of chalupas. The 5'8" infielder
dropped 10 pounds (to his current weight of 175) under his new
diet and gained speed on the bases plus an extra step and a half
in his fielding range. "We always knew he could hit, but his
progress since last year defensively has been unreal," says
Braves first base coach Glenn Hubbard. "No one has worked harder
than Marcus."

"When you're getting $2,000 a month in the minors, it's hard not
to eat Taco Bell every day," says Giles, 25, who was optioned to
Triple A Richmond last year but spent his first off-season living
on a full major league paycheck. "I finally could afford some
decent sit-down meals. I feel a lot quicker, but I'm just as
strong as before."

Very little went right for Giles last season. In what was
supposed to be his first full year as Atlanta's regular second
baseman, he hit .237 over the first two months and then landed on
the DL for seven weeks with a severely sprained right ankle.
Worse, in June, Marcus and his wife, Tracy, suffered the loss of
their first child. Lundyn Mae was born prematurely at 26 weeks
and died 16 days later. "Last year was a gut check," says Marcus.

Giles finally got some good news in March when he learned that
he'd cracked the Opening Day starting lineup. Batting second, he
has been a perfect complement to leadoff hitter Furcal, who also
made some adjustments. "Before, I tried to do too much--I swung
the bat too hard," says the 24-year-old Furcal, who hit .275 last
year but through Sunday was the 11th-leading hitter in the NL
(.327) and led the league in hits (69) and runs (48). "Now I know
that I need to get on base however I can." He already had 22
walks, more than half as many as he had last season (43). Thus
his on-base percentage had climbed to .387 from .323 last year,
and the Braves were 27-5 in games when he scored a run. Says
hitting coach Terry Pendleton, "I always tell him, this offense
is only as good as he is."

The success of Furcal and Giles has had a trickle-down effect on
the heart of the order. Rightfielder Gary Sheffield, leftfielder
Chipper Jones and centerfielder Andruw Jones are the league's
most prolific 3-4-5 hitters, with 117 RBIs among them. "My
problem has always been that I'm too aggressive," says Sheffield,
who led the league in batting (.358) at week's end. "With Rafael
and Marcus on base all the time, I can wait for my pitch."

The timing of the offensive outburst could not be better for
Atlanta. After leading the league in ERA for six straight
seasons, the Braves were 10th best (4.26), with ace righthander
Greg Maddux carrying a 4.99 mark through 12 starts (40% of the
runs he had allowed had come in the first inning). "Speed, power,
average, this is a lineup with a great offensive mix," says
Pendleton, who played third base for the Braves on three World
Series teams. "Not to take anything away from the guys I played
with, but this Braves offense is as good as any that I've ever
seen."

Francisco Rodriguez Falters
Setup Man Relieved of Duty

Seven months ago he was the unlikely hero of the postseason and
had been anointed K-Rod for his prodigious strikeouts against
some of the game's best lineups. Now Angels reliever Francisco
Rodriguez is just another rookie suffering major league growing
pains. Last week the 21-year-old Venezuelan righthander, who was
a September call-up in 2002, lost his job as Anaheim's setup man
to righthander Brendan Donnelly.

After tying the major league record for postseason victories
(five) and setting a playoff record for most strikeouts by a
reliever (28, in 18 2/3 innings), Rodriguez this season looks
more like a pitcher who had only 5 2/3 innings of major league
experience before that improbable postseason run. Through Sunday
he was 4-1 but had a 5.11 ERA and had surrendered 20 hits, 13
walks and five wild pitches in 24 2/3 innings.

Rodriguez has his stuff--the lively 95-mph fastball and nasty
83-mph slider were still unhittable and had yielded 24
strikeouts--but he was struggling to get those pitches over the
plate. The reason: an inconsistent release point in his delivery.
Rodriguez's arm comes across his torso when he throws, putting
stress on his arm and shoulder, and he finishes with a drawn-out,
deliberate release. Angels pitching coach Bud Black has been
trying to modify the delivery to correct the problem.

"He's young and he's inexperienced, but one thing Frankie does do
is adapt very well," says manager Mike Scioscia. "He'll find the
consistency he needs. He's going to be an incredible pitcher.
He's experiencing some bumps in the road, but he'll get through
it."

In the meantime Donnelly, who pitched well in the World Series
after getting hammered in the Division Series and ALCS last fall,
went 25 innings before giving up his first run of the season last
Thursday.

COLOR PHOTO: ROY DABNER/AFP (TOP) Giles (above) has made astonishing improvement as a fielder, and Furcal has the most hits in the league. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO A flaw in his delivery has led to control problems for playoff phenom K-Rod.

Scoring in Bunches

At week's end only the Blue Jays (305) and the Red Sox (297) had
scored more runs than the Braves (284) this season, but no trio
of teammates had crossed the plate more often than Rafael Furcal,
Marcus Giles and Gary Sheffield, the hitters at the top of
Atlanta's batting order. Here's how they compare with baseball's
other high-scoring threesomes.

Team
Scoring Leaders
Combined Runs

Braves
Rafael Furcal (48), Gary Sheffield (41), Marcus Giles (36)
125

Blue Jays
Carlos Delgado (42), Vernon Wells (39), Shannon Stewart (35)
116

Rangers
Carl Everett (43), Alex Rodriguez (36), Rafael Palmeiro (34)
113

Red Sox
Nomar Garciaparra (42), Johnny Damon (36), Manny Ramirez (35)
113

Rockies
Todd Helton (42), Jay Payton (35), Larry Walker (31)
108

Yankees
Alfonso Soriano (42), Raul Mondesi (34), Bernie Williams (32)
108

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)